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Around 1940, New Yorker staff writer Joe Mitchell meets Joe Gould, a Greenwich Village character who cadges meals, drinks, and contributions to the Joe Gould Fund and who is writing a voluminous Oral History of the World, a record of 20,000 conversations he's overheard. Mitchell is fascinated with this Harvard grad and writes a 1942 piece about him, "Professor Seagull," bringing Gould some celebrity and an invitation to join the Greenwich Village Ravens, a poetry club he's often crashed. Gould's touchy, querulous personality and his frequent dropping in on Mitchell for hours of chat lead to a breakup, but the two Joes stay in touch until Gould's death and Mitchell's unveiling of the secret. Written by
In my home town, I never felt at home. In New York, New York City, in Greenwich Village, down among the cranks, and the misfits, and the one runners, and the has-beens, and the might-have-beens, and the would-bes, and the never-wills, and the God-knows-whats, I have always felt at home.
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This quiet and gentle movie sneaks up on you and by the end you are left with an appreciation of how little difference there is between the quite disparate lives of the two protagonists. With a few differemt turns, circumstances, and choices an intelligent man can easily become a bohemian. I think it is for this reason that Joseph Mitchell, a staff writer for "The New Yorker" magazine, became drawn to Joe Gould, a somewhat mad homeless man with occasional flashes of unique insight and a flare for histrionics. Gould claims to be writing an "Oral History of the World." Mitchell admits to sympathizing with Gould's statement that he is at home "among the cranks and the misfits and the one-lungers and the has beens and the would-bes and the never wills and the god knows whats." Indeed, how could you not be a little interested in a man who could write that? And Mitchell comes to identify with Gould in another significant way, and that way is in fact Joe Gould's secret.
In the process of writing a profile of Gould for his magazine Mitchell develops a relationship with Gould that results in Gould's ultimately becoming somewhat of a pest. As Gould says, "When you lie down with dogs, you have to live with fleas." In a dramatic scene Mitchell gives Gould an honest appraisal of the status of his "history" that creates a rift in their relationship. But the bond is never completely severed as some of the final scenes indicate.
The period setting of New York City in the early 1940s lends an air of nostalgia. This is a movie that Woody Allen could have made if he could ever dial his nervous anxiety back several notches. The music is suitably subdued and melancholic. The casting is perfect and the performances are excellent. Every aspect of the filming gives evidence to a loving commitment.
This is a movie about dreams realized and unrealized. In a letter to Mitchell, one of Gould's friends states that, "the City's unconscious may be trying to speak to us through Joe Gould. The people who have gone underground in the City, the City's living dead. People who never belonged any place from the beginning, people sitting in dark bar-rooms, the ones who are always left out, the ones who were never asked." Such words leave you with an unspecified yearning. Maybe a yearning to read Mitchell's original "New Yorker" articles "Professor Seagull" and "Joe Gould's Secret" upon which this movie was based.
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